Network Computer Eases Surfing, but Will It Pass the Value Test?

It's called an NC (for network computer), and some computer companies sincerely hope you'll buy one. The NC will be cheaper than the PC (personal computer), easier to use, and less powerful.

But don't worry about that. Computer companies have figured out that what America wants to do is not all that complicated desktop-publishing and spreadsheet stuff.

What America really wants is to watch the Internet. Especially the graphical part of the Internet called the World Wide Web.

The NC will be optimized so that you can surf the Web to your heart's content. Turn off "Seinfeld." Tune in on that AT&T home page.

Some of the biggest powerhouses in computing have signed on to this idea. Last week, IBM, Apple, Sun, Netscape, and Oracle announced a set of specifications for the NC and quickly got more than 70 other computing companies to endorse it. They even unveiled a nifty NC logo to be used on a range of new products, from hand-held devices to desktop machines hooked up to a television set.

The idea has merit. Americans are rushing to hook up to the Internet. The biggest subject among computer users these days is not the power of their machine or the size of their hard drive. It's the speed of their modem and the quality of their Web browser (the software that allows users to view the World Wide Web).

Yet, most Americans are left out of the loop. More than 3 out of 5 households don't even own a computer. So last fall, computer companies sensed there might be a huge market for an easy-to-use Internet "viewer" that cost no more than $500 (cheaper than any PC). The NC was born.

To be successful, however, every new invention has to pass the value test. If it's going to cost as much as a nice color TV, the NC will have to offer compelling value to the consumer. Which brings up a key question: Is the Web and the rest of the Internet interesting enough that the average person is going to spend $500 to see it?

Frankly, no. After using the Web a while, I suspect that most people will find that it's a little boring. Don't get me wrong. The Web is a great new way to look up information and conduct business. It could revolutionize everything from ordering CDs to attending school. But on the entertainment meter, it's about on par with running errands and reading the encyclopedia.

Once the initial hype is over, I think most of us will quit surfing the Web and get down to the business of mining it for information. How much one might spend for an information-mining device varies greatly. But I suspect that for most of us, it's substantially less than $500.

Moreover, for a few hundred dollars more, you can buy a fully configured PC that mines the Internet just as well as an NC, but also allows you to do all the normal computing things from publishing newsletters to playing games.

It's this route that many people appear to be taking. According to a survey this month by Computer Intelligence Infocorp, one of the fastest-growing segments of new PC owners is households with incomes between $10,000 and $30,000.

More older Americans - the ones often considered most likely to eschew "complicated" PCs - are also jumping onto the bandwagon. Among households with people 60 or older, 1 in 5 households now has a PC, according to the survey.

The point is, all of us want machines that are cheaper and easier to use than today's personal computers. But the NC is not the answer.

We're still waiting for something better.

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